As the city moves towards reopening public high schools for in-person learning on March 22nd, Mayor Bill de Blasio has recently said that he'll reconsider the official protocol to close school buildings when two unrelated COVID-19 cases are reported without a known link.
The protocol, put in place by the DOE last summer, closes a classroom when there’s a single report of a positive COVID-19 case. If two or more cases in separate classes are detected but don’t appear to be linked, the building closes for an investigation. Depending on the investigation’s findings, buildings can close for just 24 hours or for an “extended” closure, which is 10 days (an update to the original 14-day closure rule).
Shutting schools allows contact tracers time to identify the extent of the spread and isolate infected staff and students, according to the DOE.
Critics of the policy say that the protocol’s strict threshold means hundreds of public school classes and dozens of buildings can close at a moment’s notice and remain shuttered for up to 10 days in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, disrupting the lives of students and families.
“We are absolutely re-evaluating that rule,” de Blasio said on Wednesday, and promised “we'll have more to say on that in the coming days, but we got a little more work to do on that.”
The protocol has frustrated parents who say it’s too restrictive and based on outdated information, and that their students barely get any time inside classrooms.
“In 2021 my daughter has gone to 10 days of school," said Daniela Jampel, a Manhattan mom actively campaigning to reopen schools and who organized a rally outside the city Department of Education's headquarters Saturday. She called the two-case threshold "arbitrary" and "infuriating."
"Why is it two cases? Why isn't it five cases or six cases or one case?" Jampel, a mother of an elementary school and pre-K student, said. "It's taking away days from our children."
As of Friday, there were 923 classrooms closed, 33 school buildings that were closed for at least 24 hours, and 216 buildings closed for the extended period.
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers union, said the safety of school communities depends on the strict protocol.
“We listened to medical experts. And right now we know that's why we have not had spread inside of our schools, [it’s] because of everything that's in our plan that was designed by independent medical experts,” Mulgrew said at a press conference Wednesday. “As we continue to open our schools, we want to make sure that we can tell parents that your child is going to be safe and your family is going to be safe.”
De Blasio has indicated he’s aware the repeated opening and closing of classrooms is stressing families out.
“I'm concerned that parents and kids are having a lot of disruption to their education, that we see schools closing more than we should see them closing,” de Blasio said at a Thursday press briefing, and repeated his assertion that “New York City public schools are extraordinarily safe.”
On Wednesday, the city released the findings of a study by de Blasio’s Senior Health Advisor Dr. Jay Varma, which examined hundreds of thousands of in-school COVID-19 tests over three months last fall, and found that “COVID-19 prevalence in schools was similar to or less than estimates of prevalence in the community.”
Mulgrew also acknowledged the toll of the protocol, which affects in-person school staff as well when their buildings close abruptly.
“I know it's difficult,” Mulgrew said at the press conference Wednesday. ”None of this has been fair. None of it,. But in order for us to keep our schools safe, and to continue to start our opening, to continue to keep schools open, as best we can [...] These are the rules we have to follow.”